Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Chişinău, the concrete capital of Moldova

After our arrival in Targu Mures, we walked for about an hour with heavy backpacks in order to find the bus station. Arriving at the bus station, Jurjen and I found out that we missed the last bus in the direction of Moldova. There was no option for us but to spend the night in Targu Mures. With the Lonely Planet city map of Targu Mures, we walked for about half an hour more to find out that the cheapest hotel in the city, 'hotel Sport', turned into some kind of hospital a couple of months ago and that the hotel simply doesn't exist anymore. A lady from the next door bowling hall described it as: hotel Sport... finito! So unfortunately, there were no cheap accommodation possibilities left. We decided to spend the night in a three-star hotel right next to the bus station, as we had the intention to leave boring Targu Mures as soon as possible. We ended up paying 22 euro each for the room, which is expensive with my budget, but ok for just one night. And the hotel was really nice with good beds and a nice hot shower. During the evening, we bought some food in an XL Kaufland supermarket, which was a couple of minutes walking from our hotel. Later that night, we enjoyed our nice hotel room and watched a bit of Romanian television before sleeping. Next morning we woke up at 6 am, took a quick shower and had breakfast in the hotel. Our minibus towards the Carpathian mountains left at 07.30am, which we catched luckily. The ride was really nice, we traveled through the mountains and we passed several small villages. It was clearly visible that we were driving in a poor part of Romania, as the way of living there is still quite primitive. The scenery was amazing, with beautiful valleys, distant mountains and sleepy towns. Around noon, the driver stopped somewhere halfway in a village next to a mountain lake. We ate something and continued our journey further east, through a hilly area towards Romania's second largest city: Iasi (pronounce as 'Yash').

Arriving in Iasi, we directly searched for transportation to the Moldovan border. It appeared that our only option was to take a shared taxi to Ungheni, which is the first town on the Moldovan side of the border. Quite quickly we found a driver, who already had two Moldovan passengers and was willing to take us to Moldova. After negotiation of the price we left for the 20km ride to the border. The friendly driver had some contacts at the border post and managed to get us across the border very quickly. Our passports were stamped and before we knew, we were driving on an empty road in one of the poorest countries in Europe: the republic of Moldova.
Moldova is a small and quite an unknown country lying between Romania and Ukraine. The reason we went to Moldova is because virtually no tourists spend their holiday time there. Moldova probably is the least visited country on the European continent, which makes it an
interesting destination to us. Both culturally and ethnically, Moldova is quite similar to Romania. The main difference is that Moldova used to be part of the Soviet Union and Romania was ruled by the Ceausescu regime. The first place where we arrived after the border crossing is an industrial town called Ungheni. The people from the shared taxi helped us finding a marshrutka to Chişinău and we continued our journey eastwards. Being cramped on the tiny seats and being shaked around because of the bumpy road, we were happy to arrive in the Moldovan capital a couple of hours later.
The Moldovan capital really is a strange place. In a way, the city is nice because of its laid back atmosphere and cozy parks. But on the other hand, Chişinău doens't have any sights and isn't a touristic destination at all. Almost all buildings in Chişinău are uninspiring concrete monsters dating from the Soviet period. The city doesn't really have a cozy centre like other European cities have and because we visited Moldova in february, the city and its inhabitants looked rather grim.
However, staying in Moldova was a nice experience for a couple of reasons . First of all, we found a very cheap hotel and discovered that food and other expenses are quite cheap compared to Romania. The hotel were we stayed is a huge concrete Soviet building with unhelpful staff and dusty furniture, dating from the 1950s. But because of its low price and good location, we enjoyed staying there. The second thing which I liked about Moldova was the ability to practise my Russian. Lots of Moldovans speak Russian and Chişinău has quite a large Russian population. Studying Russian for over half a year already, it was a nice opportunity for me to practise. And although touristic sites in Chişinău are very rare, we did saw some nice churches and interesting buildings. Also the simple street plan made it easy to orientate around the city.
The second day in Chişinău we had lunch in the largest fast-food joint of the country, named Andy's Pizza. It is like a Moldovan counterpart to McDonalds and there are restaurants of Andy's Pizza spread out all over the city, almost at every streetcorner. The place where we went into was completely full, which is quite logical, because they serve huge pizza's for amazingly low prices. The menu consists, besides the pizza's, a large selection of vodka brands and other alcoholic drinks.
We left Chişinău on the third day, on a nighttrain back to Bucharest. Especially the ride before the Romanian border was really nice and we spended some time talking about Dutch football with a Romanian guy in the restaurant wagon. Also see the short video about the trainride below.
The bordercrossing to Romania however, was annoyingly slow. In total it took about 4 hours just at the border. One of the reasons is the changing of the carriages of the whole train. Romania uses European railway tracks, while Moldovan has Russian railway tracks, which are a bit more wide. Therefore, the whole train had to be lifted so that all the carriages could be changed.
The morning after, we arrived in Bucharest and walked towards the city centre for some breakfast and a bus to the airport. We catched our flight back to Dortmund and travelled back home by train.
Reflecting back on this journey, I would say that I like Romania more, as it is much more beautiful than Moldova. Our visit to Moldova however, was really interesting and I am also glad I visited that tiny country. One other highlight of our visit was the amazing weather. I expected heavy snow and february-like temperatures, but it was totally the opposite. Nice sunny days with a comfortable temperature between 15 and 20 degrees Celcius.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Short journey to the country of gypsies and Dracula

In the last week of february, I set of for a 10 day journey through Romania and Moldova. Although usually I travel solo, this time I went together with a friend from Wijk bij Duurstede (its the place where I live), Jurjen. We decided to travel to Romania mostly out of interest in the Eastern Balkan, but secondly because of the cheap flying possiblity. We booked a returnflight from Dortmund (Germany) to Bucharest with an el-cheapo flightcompany called Wizz-air.
Because our flight left Dortmund in the early morning on Saturday, we traveled to Germany on the evening before. Leaving around 6pm, via the extremely boring Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Venlo, we arrived in Dortmund 4 hours later. Getting into Dortmund was bit of an unexpected cultureshock, as the city is stereotypical for the industrial Ruhr area: lots of grey abandoned buildings, drunken Germans strolling the streets looking for beer, lots of trash and an atmosphere of disorder. Our aim actually was not to see some of Dortmund's sights, but to find a bar in order to drink through the night while waiting for a suitable time to go the the airport. Our search for a bar wasn't an easy one though, as the center of the German city was completely empty. Luckily (or maybe not), we found a bar with Madonna music and people with an average age of above 40 where we drunk a couple of beers until closing time. After we went to a similar place where we met an old guy with a mustache with whom we talked about the ups and downs of football club Borussia Dortmund. A couple of hours later, we moved on to the airport.
After landing in the Romanian capital, we found a bus to the city center, but in our rush we forgot to buy a ticket. We ended up paying a guy a fine of 50 Lei each for not having a valid busticket, nice start of a holiday... From the center of town, we walked for about 2 hours in order to find our hostel, which had an almost unfindable location somewhere in the ghetto of the city. By the time we finally found it, we rested a bit in the plesant hostel and strolled through the city afterwards. Bucharest is a city of extremes: you can see people driving in the most expensive cars, going to the most expensive shops, while at the same time some people live in bitter poverty. And o yeah, there is the typical thing which is impossible not to notice: straydogs, lots of straydogs. I was being told that Bucharest has a population of about 200.000 straydogs, who can be dangerous on occasion. But besides the dogs and the differences in welfare, the Romanian capital is a beautiful city with a lot of sights. Most of it, we saw on our second day, because after talking with other travellers and a farting Indian, we slept quite early due to the tiresome night in Germany.
So on our second day, we started moving to another hostel as the place was full that day. We took our bags and went to a place called the 'Funky Chicken Hostel', on a more findable location in the center of the city. From our new base, we walked around the city and saw some of Bucharest's most stunning sights. The first major stop was the immense People's Palace, which is the second largest building in the world (after the US Pentagon). It was build by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu for the cost of 1/6 of Bucharest's surface area, causing hundred thousands of homeless people. The palace is also known for illustrating the sharp contrast between the luxury living style of Ceausescu (in the second largest builing of the world) and the poor population of communist Romania.
Besides the People's Palace, we saw the former Royal Palace, Plata Unirii, Stavropoleos Church, Bucharest University and the lovely wide boulevards of the city. It is clearly visible that Bucharest is developing fast, lot of construction is going on and new skyscrapers contrast with old churches and palaces. After completion of our sightseeing walk, we enjoyed a pizza and a beer in a cheap local restaurant. During the night we went out for one of Bucharest other highlights: Club A. According to my guidebook, this place is known for the cheapest vodka-redbull in the world, so obviously we had to check this out. We enjoyed conversation with some other travellers in the Funky Chicken hostel, before we went to the Club A. It really was a nice place, with indeed very cheap drinks. Somewhere during the night we walked back to our hostel and on the way, we had a bit of trouble as we were stopped by two policemen. They asked for our passports, which we carried with us luckily. They checked our documents and told us to be quiet, everything fine.
Spending two days in Bucharest already, we figured it was about time to move on towards the heartland of Romania: Transylvania. From Bucharest's trainstation we travelled through the Carpathian mountains to Brasov, the largest city in Transylvania. Because we arrived quite late, we spended the evening eating pizza and enjoying the relaxing atmosphere of our hostel. We drank some cheap drinks and talked with a funny American guy after watching Pulp Fiction in the hostel. We prepared us for a long sight-seeing walk the next day.
Starting with coffee and some grapefruits next morning, we quickly moved on to the centre of beautiful Brasov. The city is mostly known for its skiing slopes, but the town itself is very pretty as well. We saw some nice churches, the cozy town square and we climbed a hill for an amazing view over the city and its mountainous hinterlands. Brasov is a medieval city and originally a Saxon settlement. This Saxon influence is pretty much visible in the architecture of Brasov's historical buildings. The second half of the afternoon, after strolling down from the viewpoint, we made our way back to the hostel. Overthere, we prepared ourselves some pasta, which turned out to be one of the worst Italian meals I've ever eaten (in sharp contrast to the pizza of the day before). The rest of the evening we enjoyed conversations with other guests in the hostel and we watched a movie. The hostel, named Kismet Dao, probably was the best accomodation we had in Romania. Good priced, nice staff, relaxed atmosphere and a hyper-active dog named Ruben. Only downside was a snoring Serbian guy, who kept us awake in the night.
From Brasov, we continued our way north as we took a train to Sighisoara, another medieval Saxon town in Transylvania. Actually we intended to travel to Sibiu, but as we missed the train, we decided to change plans and we bought a ticket to Sighisoara. The trainride was nice, but also quite slow. It took the old and rusty train over two hours to bring us to Sighisoara, where we arrived late in the afternoon. Sighisoara is a small place, but it has a beautiful medieval centre, build on top of a hill. The town is known for being the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, better known as Dracula. Today, in Sighisoara there is quite some 'Dracula tourism' visible, we saw a lot of places with Dracula souvenirs and you can take your picture with the touristic version of mr Tepes. Because Sighisoara is very small, it was easy to find our way and we saw the main sights of the pitoresque town pretty fast. In the hostel where we stayed, we met a man named Imre, who is one of the employees of our accomodation spot. During the evening, I played a couple of chess games with him. Jurjen went to sleep early, due to some the tiresome nights in Bucharest and Brasov. Around midnight, I also went to bed.
Next day we continued our walks throught Sighisoara, enjoying its Saxon architecture and making pictures of its cobblestone streets and ramshackle buildings. We climbed Sighisoara's clocktower for views over the surrounding area and had a quick instant noodle lunch in our hostel. In the afternoon, we packed our stuff and walked towards the bus station. Around 3 pm, we were able to catch a ride with a minibus to a city called Targu Mures, about an hour north of Sighisoara. We intended not to stay in uninteresting Targu Mures, but as all the trains and busses in the direction of Moldova already left, there was no option but to search for a place to stay.